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Atheism: Madalyn Murray O\\'Hair 1962 speech
The following is the text of an address given by the founder of American Atheists at the Eighth Annual Convention of the American Rationalist Federation, on 25 August 1962, before the US Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case now known as Murray v Curlett. The speech was originally printed in The American Rationalist, Volume 17, Number 3, September/October 1962.
The indestructible foundation of the whole edifice of Atheism is its philosophy, materialism, or naturalism, as it is also known. That philosophy regards the world as it actually is, views it in the light of the data provided by progressive science and social experience. Atheistic materialism is the logical outcome of scientific knowledge gained over the centuries.
We make a fundamental error, I think, as we tilt at the windmills of imagined gods. We need to review from where we have come, under what conditions, and to see the threshold upon which we stand now.
Our history has been marked by a ceaseless struggle against ignorance and superstition. In ancient Greece the works of the materialist philosopher Democritus, who first taught the atomic theory of matter, were destroyed. Anaxagoras was banished from Athens for being an Atheist. The materialist philosopher Epicurus, revered by the ancients for having liberated man from fear of gods and for asserting the validity of science, was for 2000 years anathematized and falsely depicted as an enemy of morality and a disseminator of vice. The Alexandria library, housing 700,000 scientific and literary works, was burned by Christian monks in 391 AD. Pope Gregory I (590-604) destroyed many valuable works by ancient authors. In every society there have been forces that have stood to lose by the dissemination of progressive scientific views. In the past these forces either directly persecuted progressive scientists and philosophers or sought to distort scientific discoveries so as to deprive them of their progressive, materialistic implications.
The Inquisition, a papal invention for suppressing all opposition to the Catholic Church, savagely persecuted all progressive thinkers; Giordano Bruno, Ludilio Vanini, and Galileo come readily to mind.
Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille, and Diderot was sent to prison. In our own country we are familiar with the story of Thomas Paine, of the Salem witch trials, of Ingersoll, of Einstein. The struggle is unceasing, as important today as during any other period of history.
We need, therefore, to see what we fight and why. We need not direct our main assault against the Bible or the Koran. We need not argue endlessly about the historicity of Jesus. We should look past trinities and angels and other theological blind alleys. We must look to materialistic philosophy which alone enables men to understand reality and to know how to deal with it. It is true that today our kind are no longer burned at the stake, but there are many other ways of exerting pressure. Our scientists and progressive philosophers are dismissed from universities and other employment. Outspoken scientific and philosophical works are much less likely to be published than rather senseless junk. Character assassination is common. Reactionary religious propaganda is unceasingly drummed into unthinking minds through the captive media of mass communication. As always, our opponents today are formidable. But our strength lies in the positive approach of uncovering and publicizing the laws of nature and human behavior, and in applying these laws in the interest of human welfare. We need not waste our time with endless arguments about tortuous paths of the endless labyrinths of theology.
We need to know upon what we base ourselves. Atheism is based upon a materialist philosophy, which holds that nothing exists but natural phenomena. There are no supernatural forces or entities, nor can there be any. Nature simply exists. But there are those who deny this, who assert that only mind or idea or spirit is primary. This question of the relation of the human mind to material being is one of the fundamental questions dealt with by all philosophers, however satisfactorily. The Atheist must slice through all obfuscation to bedrock, to the basic idea that those who regard nature as primary and thought as a property (or function) of matter belong to the camp of materialism, and that those who maintain that spirit or idea or mind existed before nature or created nature or uphold nature belong to the camp of idealism. All conventional religions are based on idealism. Many varieties of idealism exist, but the apologist for idealism and opponents of materialism go under many names; we have, for instance, dualists, objective idealists, subjective idealists, solipsists, positivists, Machians, irrationalists, existentialists, neo-positivists, logical positivists, fideists, revived medieval scholastics, Thomists. And opposed to these stand alone the Atheistic materialists (or perhaps naturalists, Rationalists, freethinkers, etc.) who have no need for intellectual machinations, deceptions, or masquerades.
Whether or not the Bible is pornographic literature is only a side issue. Let us see what the Idealist camp features. The church teaches a contempt for earthly life and that to reach some imagined \heaven\ is the main goal of life.
And, significantly, the church teaches that this goal can be achieved only as the reward for obedience and meekness. The church threatens the wrath of God and the torment of hell for those who dare to oppose its teaching. But Materialism liberates us, teaches us not to hope for happiness beyond the grave but to prize life on earth and strive always to improve it. Materialism restores to man his dignity and his intellectual integrity. Man is not a worm condemned to crawl in the dust, but a human being capable of mastering the forces of nature and making them serve him. Materialism compels faith in the human intellect, in the power of knowledge in man's ability to fathom all the secrets of nature and to create a social system based upon reason and justice. Materialism's faith is in man and his ability to transform the world by his own efforts. It is a philosophy in every essence optimistic, life-asserting, and radiant. It considers the struggle for progress as a moral obligation, and impossible without noble ideals that inspire men to struggle, to perform bold, creative work.
Modern materialism - or naturalism - is linked with the everyday experience of people. It believes in experiment as the basis of knowledge, and neglects no sphere of reality. It advances itself as an ideological weapon for use in progress. It is in social life that man develops his mind and emotions, will, and conscience, and puts meaning and purpose into life. He does not closet himself in solitary prayer and dream of death as a door opening unto eternal bliss. A materialist lives a full social life and is inspired by progressive ideals; he is concerned with the problems and joys of life, not death. He is deeply involved with shaping his life as a useful member of society and contributing what he can to its progress.
The Idealist sees science and man as subordinate to religion, to \idea,\ and sees knowledge as subordinate to faith. The ultimate object of the idealist is to furnish evidence of the existence of \God.\ He lays great stress on moral questions, but the morality he preaches is one of meek submission, of passive acceptance, and thus, of justification of existing social evils. This morality substitutes prayer and appeals for divine assistance for struggle and protest against social injustice. The entire Idealist philosophy is contrived, with deliberateness, to bolster the status quo.
Ours is a time when successful struggle against this reactionary philosophy requires more than a petulant argument over the authorship of the Gospels, more than a negative attack on the totalitarian and monolithic authoritarianism of conventional religion, but rather an aggressive action program to spread the positive philosophy of materialism.